The young couple detained by Indonesian authorities on the island of Bali this week over their suspected role in the beating death of Chicagoan Sheila von Wiese-Mack could face a legal system wholly different from that in the United States — one described by legal experts as reputedly corrupt but often sensitive to cases involving foreigners.
Investigators' capabilities generally lag behind those in more developed countries. Guilt or innocence is not determined by juries in Indonesia but by a panel of judges with wide latitude to question witnesses, and a defendant's show of respect for and cooperation with the authorities can shave time off a sentence. Prison conditions in the former Dutch colony can be harsh, though the sentences of well-behaving prisoners can be lightened on national holidays.
Still, experts say Indonesia's legal system is adept not only at prosecuting foreigners but also in doing so in a fair and transparent manner.
"Bali lives from tourism, and it brings in a lot of foreign exchange for Indonesia," said Jeffrey Winters, a professor of politics and an Indonesia expert at Northwestern University. "Anything involving foreigners is just automatically very high-profile and very sensitive. And the U.S. Embassy will be fully engaged in this."
Heather Mack, 18, and Tommy Schaefer, 21, have not been charged in connection with the death of Mack's mother, though authorities in Bali have spoken of the pair as if they consider them guilty. The couple have been ordered to undergo mental health exams.
A State Department spokeswoman said the U.S. government is monitoring the situation on the resort island. Indonesian police arrested Mack and Schaefer after a taxi driver found the 62-year-old victim's battered body stuffed inside a hard-sided suitcase this week outside the St. Regis luxury hotel in Nusa Dua.
Police said that on the morning of her death, von Wiese-Mack was seen arguing with her daughter and Schaefer over who would pay the hotel bill. Later that morning, the couple came down with a suitcase that they loaded into a taxi, refusing offers of help from hotel staff, according to a report in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Hotel staff refused the couple's request for the contents of the victim's safe deposit box, and they left the hotel through a back door after saying they were returning to their room to gather more luggage, the newspaper reported. Authorities said Mack and Schaefer took another taxi to the airport, where they told staff they had lost their passports. They were told to go to the U.S. Consulate, but instead they took a taxi to the hotel where they were found the next day, according to the Morning Herald.
At the hotel where von Wiese-Mack's body was found, the police located several other bags belonging to the couple containing blood-soaked towels. Investigators also found broken glass in the victim's room and believe she was bludgeoned with a heavy glass object, according to the newspaper.
People close to the family said the mother and daughter had a volatile relationship. Police in Oak Park, where they lived before moving to Chicago, said officers responded to dozens of calls from the Macks' home over the past decade. In December 2011, the younger Mack was arrested on charges alleging domestic battery, aggravated battery and battery, according to Cook County juvenile records. A family friend told the Tribune the arrest followed a violent argument with her mother.
In late April 2012, records show, the teen was placed on one year of court supervision after being found guilty of battery. She was ordered to undergo counseling, including for anger management, as part of a violence prevention program. She lived during parts of 2012 in two different community-based facilities for minors entangled in the juvenile court system who are in need of education, life skills and mental health services. Records show Mack successfully completed the court-ordered programs.
A provincial police chief in Bali said officials had performed "blood and psychiatric tests" in an effort to determine the couple's motive.
"Maybe they are mentally unstable," Djoko Hari Utomo, police chief for Bali's provincial capital Denpasar, told reporters. "So far we haven't gotten any information on what is behind the murder. Is it financial or something else? We don't know."
A Chicago attorney said Mack was hysterical Tuesday evening when she called from police custody to ask for help.
"She said there was something wrong, and she started crying," the attorney, Michael Elkin, said Thursday.
Elkin said Mack was focused on reaching out to authorities before she was taken into custody, not running from them. Elkin said he told her to contact U.S. authorities in Bali.
"She was not asking if she should flee, but whether she should contact the police or the embassy," Elkin said. "It wasn't, 'How do I get rid of the body?' It was, 'I need your advice on what to do.'"
Unlike in America's legal system, Indonesian judges play a prominent direct role in legal proceedings, controlling the presentation of evidence and often questioning witnesses themselves, according to legal experts and materials prepared by the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
"It is not as rigid a system as ours," Winters said. "There's an enormous amount of discretion on the hand of judges to decide what is or is not valid. ... Judges don't just sit there and be traffic cops in the process. Judges are very involved in every aspect."
A booklet of information for arrested U.S. citizens in Indonesia, prepared by the American Embassy, says the country provides attorneys for those unable to procure one of their own but warns that those attorneys fall short of American standards.
"In this event, you should not expect competent and zealous representation," the booklet says.
Indonesia's justice system can be "severely corrupt," Winters said, but that tends to affect cases involving wealthy and powerful locals. The system in Bali is particularly experienced, he added, because of its status as a tourist destination and a hot spot for recreational drug use.
"This is a very high-profile case, which means massive domestic and international scrutiny," Winters said. "That's going to reduce the chances that there's going to be any irregularities."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun